Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

During Mississippi’s deadliest stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic in August and September, the state’s largest school district received emotional pleas from parents and even a student to implement a mask mandate in its schools.

The DeSoto County School District, from July 28 to Sept. 30, heard from dozens of parents and community members asking for a mask mandate, according to emails obtained by Mississippi Today through a public records request.

Parents of children with conditions such as type 1 diabetes and cancer, in addition to nurses and physicians, made personal, direct pleas with district officials for a mask requirement. Several parents detailed how their child was one of very few in the classroom wearing a mask.

One student who sent an email to the district said she didn’t feel safe at school and begged leaders to shut things down for a period of time. She also mentioned the toll of having to watch teachers “fighting for their life” in the hospital.

At the time the parents were reaching out, the massive district, made up of more than 34,000 students, was one of just 16 in the state not to require masks in school buildings.

The emails, sent by at least 80 parents to the district, were mostly met with a boilerplate response from district officials that thanked them for their input and said their feedback would be shared with the leadership team. Some of the emails reiterated that they recommend masking.

But throughout August, the deadliest month for the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, the district never budged. In mid-August, Hernando High School shut down and transitioned to virtual learning after COVID-19 cases exploded. The school reported over 60 positive students during the two weeks leading up to and during the shutdown. 

Several other schools in the district saw high numbers of infections and quarantines in August. At Lewisburg Middle School, 91 students were infected with COVID-19 in August. In just one week, Aug. 23 through 27, 287 students at the school were quarantined due to exposure, according to data reported to the Mississippi Department of Health. 

And in September, as cases continued to soar, it still stood firm in not implementing a mask requirement. 

“Over the past six years, I have trusted DeSoto County Schools with my most precious gifts; but now I’m reconsidering that,” one parent wrote in an email to the district’s COVID address. 

Another parent, whose child is in kindergarten, said her student is one of 3 in a room of 24 who wears a mask.

“Don’t make me look at either of my kids in the eyes and watch them die or be hooked to a ventilator because you’re being irresponsible as their leaders,” she wrote.

The parent of a child with type 1 diabetes also wrote the district explaining his child is too young to be vaccinated. 

“She is counting on you to make her schooling reasonably safe and you are currently failing to do so,” he wrote. 

Another parent of a diabetic child told the district she would be considering withdrawing her child if masks weren’t made mandatory, and yet another parent of a child with cancer described her son as “extremely vulnerable and immunocompromised.”

“I have not witnessed a single measure taken to help our babies stay safe,” she wrote on Aug. 22.  

READ MORE: Pediatrician parents say Mississippi’s largest school district is ignoring their COVID advice

When asked why the district never implemented a mask mandate based on the input it was receiving via its COVID email address, spokesperson Lauren Margeson said the district usually only hears from parents who disagree with a school practice.

“If parents are in agreement with district plans regarding any topic, it is rare that they offer comments on that topic,” said Margeson. “Most parent comments of any nature are offered when there is disagreement with a plan.”

Several nurses and pediatricians also wrote to the district asking for a mask mandate during the August and September time period. The district, in an emailed statement to Mississippi Today in September, said it considered the advice of medical professionals in developing its protocols, including the lack of a mask requirement. 

Officials, however, declined to name the professionals who expressed opinions contrary to guidelines around masking and quarantining from the Centers for Disease Control, Mississippi Department of Health, American Academy of Pediatrics and others. Margeson said officials did not hear from these medical professionals via the COVID email address but through “one-on-one in-person conversations.”

Margeson went on to say the district considers all parents’ comments on this and other issues. 

However, through the two-month span of the delta variant surge, only one modification was made to the district’s protocols after one of the high schools shut down due to high COVID-19 numbers. That modification, introduced in August, included a stipulation that a school principal would meet with the superintendent when 5% of a school’s student enrollment tested positive for COVID-19 during the previous week, and the principal would submit “plans for further mitigation strategies to reduce transmission and maintain a safe school environment.” 

It goes on to say if those strategies are not sufficient, “the school board grants the superintendent the authority to require masks on that campus for a 5-10 day period.”

On Sept. 3, one day after Mississippi Today published an article detailing how a group of parents who are also pediatricians at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital felt the district was ignoring their advice, Robert Foster issued a call to action on his Facebook page.

Foster, a former state legislator and failed gubernatorial candidate from DeSoto County who spreads COVID-19 misinformation and touts his belief that masks are “borderline child abuse,” asked his Facebook followers to email the district to thank them for keeping masks optional.

After Foster’s call-out, the district received about 65 emails thanking leaders for not instituting a mask mandate. Several of those emails matched his political talking points about masking, and included misconceptions and mistruths about the science behind masking.

“Don’t bow to Satan and try to indoctrinate our children with garbage,” one email sent to the district earlier in the summer read. “You Keep God in our schools and Stand up for the Red, White and Blue Flag that represents Freedom.”

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.